“Mother Knows Best”
Barbara L. Curtis
I was stunned to find Mother calmly sitting at my kitchen table. We hadn’t spoken in a very long time. She was dressed uncharacteristically in a long black dress accented by a necklace of pearls. Before her was a silver coffee service set with two patterned china cups and saucers. She leaned forward, picked up one of the cups and held it out towards me.
“Don’t drink the coffee, Lottie, whatever you do; not a drop of the coffee.”
“Yes, of course,” I agreed hastily.
I didn’t want to waste time talking about coffee. There were so many other things that I wanted to discuss with her. Before I could ask her all the questions that had welled up inside me at her appearance, my eyes opened. I lay still for a few minutes staring at the ceiling. The dream had felt so real that I had to take the time to resign myself to the fact that I wouldn’t be taking part in any conversation with Mother. She had been dead for fifteen years.
Remnants of the dream clung to me as I prepared for my day. My morning routine never took long, as I am a creature of habit: coffee and toast for breakfast; dress in skirt and blouse laid out the previous evening; dab on face cream and lipstick; drive to the transit lot at precisely 7:15.
As soon as I found my place midway back on the bus, I pulled a paperback out of my purse. I read the same page three times without comprehension as the recollection of my dream kept intruding. I slipped the novel back into my bag and surrendered to my thoughts. No one had called me Lottie since Mother passed away, my given name being Charlotte. It had been strangely comforting to hear her use my nickname. What had seemed odd was Mother offering advice about coffee. She knew I was a tea drinker. She had never been shy about giving advice to me, her only daughter, but it had generally involved such things as using correct grammar, managing finances, dressing modestly and practicing good manners.
The bus arrived at the downtown center and I put aside my thoughts of Mother and collected my bag and sweater. I thanked the driver as I had been taught and stepped out to face reality. Reality in this case was my job at First Security Bank. I supervised the bank’s tellers, mostly foolish young girls who left their positions to marry after I had spent months training them in bank procedures. My work was not difficult and lately was more pleasurable now that Harry Reynolds worked upstairs in an enterprise that managed employee benefits.
Harry was a tall man with close cropped silver hair. His smile had a little boy’s eagerness to please about it. He wore bow ties that were invariably slightly askew. We’d met a few months ago when I’d purchased a tax deferred annuity and discovered that we shared the hobby of growing roses. We had taken such an instant liking to each other that Harry had been distracted from some of the necessary paperwork. He generally greeted me in the lobby and we went to lunch on Fridays. Prior to meeting Harry my sole social outlet had been my Women’s Book Club. At my age I didn’t want to be silly, but I felt a growing attraction and hoped Harry was experiencing the same. As I entered the bank building I was pleased to see him waiting for the elevator.
“Good morning, Charlotte,” he said. “Are you free for lunch today?”
“Today? It’s only Wednesday.”
He smiled “Surely you eat lunch on Wednesdays as well as Fridays.”
“Well, of course. I can make myself available at one o’clock.”
“Very well, I’ll meet you at Domini’s.”
With a little wave he stepped onto the elevator and I was left to look forward to a good meal as well as intelligent conversation.
I directed my energies to the duties of employment and had no time to think further of my strange dream until I was on my way to the sandwich shop. I debated sharing my experience with Harry but quickly determined not to mention it. When I arrived at the restaurant Harry was waiting in a booth and raised his hand in greeting. He fingered his bow tie, causing it to dip further down on the left side.
“I took the liberty of ordering you an iced tea, unsweetened,” he said.
“Thank you.” I was pleased that he remembered my preference. Then I noticed that three menus had been placed on the table. Harry saw my glance and explained, “I’ve asked my sister Gwen to join us today.”
I blinked in surprise. He had never mentioned a sister. Of course, we hadn’t spoken much about our personal lives. “How nice,” I murmured.
At that moment Harry raised his hand again in greeting. I turned to look towards the entrance where a young woman with sleek black hair stood removing her sunglasses. She was smartly dressed in white slacks and a blue blazer. As she reached our table Harry stood and said, “Charlotte, this is my sister Gwen Reynolds. Gwen, this is Charlotte Shemwell.”
Gwen’s smile was movie star attractive. “How nice to meet you,” she said. “Harry has told me so much about you.”
He’s told me nothing of you, I thought. We shook hands and then busied ourselves with our food orders.
Harry tugged at his tie so that now the right side slanted downwards. “Gwen is an avid reader,” he told me. “Perhaps she would be allowed to attend your book club meeting.”
“Oh,” I said, “I’d need to bring it up with the other members, but I’m sure they’d welcome another reader.” I turned to Gwen. “What genre do you prefer?”
The young woman flashed her brilliant smile. “Oh, I like nearly everything except horror stories.”
“I know what you mean,” I agreed. “I don’t like graphic violence either.”
The sandwiches were good as always, but our lunch together seemed somewhat diminished by the addition of a third party. When we finished eating I excused myself to wash up in the ladies room. As I was making my way back to the table I noticed that Harry reached across and took Gwen’s hand. You didn’t often see such affection in families anymore.
Gwen attracted a certain attention from the male customers as she left the sandwich shop. “Your sister is very nice,” I told Harry politely.
He smiled. “Thank you. I’m rather protective of her. It’s very kind of you to consider her for your book group.”
When we parted at the entrance to the bank building I felt optimistic about taking Gwen under my wing. I hoped the other book club members would be accepting of her.
I discovered at our next meeting that I needn’t have worried. All the ladies were quite charmed by Gwen and she did show a bit of enthusiasm for reading. She became our newest club member and I could see that the older women appreciated her youthful energy tempered by good etiquette.
Gwen joined Harry and me regularly for our Friday lunches. Now that we were better acquainted I didn’t see it as quite such an intrusion. She generally left first, giving me time alone with Harry. “She’s lucky to have a brother looking out for her,” I told him.
He perked right up. “Do you think so?”
“Absolutely,” I said. I reached out and straightened his bow tie. It was black and red, reminiscent of one worn by some television personality of my childhood years.
“I’d do most anything for her,” he said softly.
“That’s what family is all about,” I agreed.
I was taken by surprise the Friday Gwen showed up with a handful of travel brochures.
“Charlotte, just look at this!” She held out a pamphlet with a picture of a mountain camp site. “I think you and I and Harry should take a little trip together. It would be such fun!”
I did my best to muster some enthusiasm. “I’ll think about it,” was the best I could do. She thrust the pamphlet into my hand and smiled. Harry seemed to be quite taken with the idea. He pored over the opened brochure with interest.
“Let’s give this a try, Charlotte. It would get us away from city life for a bit.” I agreed to think it over and stuffed the papers into my purse.
That night my mother returned. This time she sat across from me in my living room wearing her usual cotton slacks and matching blouse. In a voice more gentle than I ever remembered her using she asked me, “Who benefits?” She leaned forward and repeated, “Just who benefits?” Then she leaned back and nodded in satisfaction.
“Mother!” I tried to shout. I ached to ask her to explain her visits and what the messages meant, but my tongue would not form the words. While I struggled to speak she faded from sight. I woke in a tangle of sheets with tears forming in my eyes. I tried to calm down. I couldn’t fathom any reason for these dreams. It was upsetting to experience a second realistic night time visitation and I feared for my mental state. I’d thought of my mother over the years and felt sad that we would never speak again. Now I found her appearances in my dreams with such odd advice distressing rather than comforting.
So far I hadn’t told a soul about these occurrences, but her cryptic words were burned into my brain. I could not dismiss them nor make sense of them. The best plan was to distract myself. I took out the brochures that Gwen had given me and began to read about the marvels of camping in Big Sky Country.
In spite of a busy work week I took Mother’s words to heart and carefully studied my small life insurance policy as well as my bank accounts. Everything appeared to be in order. On Thursday I decided to ask Harry for my quarterly annuity report. He was home ill that day according to Ms. Grey, the receptionist. She was happy to take my request and within five minutes presented me with a statement. As I was leaving I turned back with one more request.
“Could you please get me a copy of my application pages? I must have misplaced them.”
Actually Harry had neglected to provide me with full copies once we’d begun to chat. It was sweet that he’d been so attentive to me but I didn’t want to cause him any embarrassment.
“Certainly, Miss Shemwell,” the efficient Ms. Grey replied, “I can have them ready tomorrow.”
The next day Harry returned to work and we lunched together as usual. “Gwen is unable to join us today,” he told me, so we took the opportunity to discuss our roses. Harry favored the Hybrid Tea roses; David Austin and Double Delight. I grew the old varieties like Lady Banks and American Beauty.
“The aphids have nearly overrun the rose beds this year,” I complained.
“I’ve been battling them, too,” he commiserated. “Luckily I have a small amount of a systemic that’s no longer allowed on the market in this country. It’s a white powder still manufactured in Holland; quite toxic and quite effective.”
“I can’t blame you for using it,” I told him. “Just be careful when handling it. There’s a good reason that it’s illegal.”
“Thank you for your concern,” he said, “But I know just how to handle it. I considered using it on a neighbor’s dog that kept digging into my roses, but the family moved away.”
I stopped eating. “You’re joking, of course,” I said.
Harry pulled at his polka dotted bow tie and blinked. “Oh, of course,” he murmured.
He cleared his throat. “You know I have our campsite all set and reserved for next week, as we agreed. Gwen is so excited about this trip that she can hardly wait to go. You are such a good sport to agree to it.”
“I’ll be agreeable as long as we take my car. I don’t mind highway driving and you can give me directions,” I said. I was surprised to find myself looking forward to a little adventure.
“You haven’t informed your co-workers about our trip, have you?” he asked.
“No, of course not,” I said. We had agreed that it would seem unprofessional if we were known to be traveling together.
The following days flew by in a flurry of preparation. I cancelled the newspaper for the week and watered the garden thoroughly. Never having camped, I consulted a library book regarding suitable clothing and supplies. I could only hope that the young tellers wouldn’t do anything too foolish during my absence.
I didn’t sleep well the night before our departure, but it was due to nerves, rather than strange dreams. In the morning I got up early and placed my gear in the car. Then I double checked the window and door locks and sat on the porch sipping coffee. We had agreed to leave at ten o’clock, although I would have preferred an earlier start. I was somewhat puzzled by Harry’s enthusiasm for a camping trip. He didn’t seem to be any more the outdoors type than I was. I certainly hoped he wouldn’t be using the isolated camp spot to try to talk me into an additional investment.
The mail carrier walked up with the day’s mail and I reminded him that my delivery would be held for the rest of the week. I took two envelopes from the young man and slipped them into my purse. At exactly ten o’clock I drove to Harry’s apartment building.
Harry was waiting in front of his building with a pile of camping gear and two large duffel bags. Gwen came from the parking lot carrying a large covered coffee mug. Even wearing jeans and a t-shirt she looked fashionable. She gave Harry’s arm a squeeze and greeted me with a dazzling smile. “You are an absolute angel to drive,” she said. Harry stowed the gear and we began our trip.
We traveled in rather awkward companionship at first. Lunching together had not prepared us for the intimacy of a road trip. I would have been more comfortable traveling without Gwen, but that was highly inappropriate. Gwen chattered about everything we passed and Harry studied the map and estimated when we would reach each point. After an hour the initial excitement of starting on the trip faded into the monotony of a long car ride. Gwen ceased her commentary on the scenery and leaned back with her eyes closed. Harry folded up the map, placed it in the door pocket and stared silently out the window as we sped east on I-90. The silence gave me time to once again question why Gwen and Harry had proposed such an unlikely outing and why I had agreed to be a part of it.
My spirits revived when we stopped at a roadside café just outside of St. Regis, Montana and Harry treated us to hot sandwiches. When we’d finished eating he said, “I need to stretch my legs,” and went out to walk in the parking area where Gwen joined him. A few minutes later I walked out to the car and heard Harry mutter “Gina”. He and Gwen exchanged an intense look. My heart sank at the thought of enduring a family squabble for the next hundred miles.
To my relief they both relaxed and dozed as I kept on a steady course heading east. My passengers didn’t rouse themselves until I pulled into a gas station. I made sure to start the drive south into the Madison River Valley with a full gas tank. We were all quite taken with the vista spreading out before us.
“It’s even more beautiful than in the brochures,” Gwen exclaimed.
“Very nice,” Harry agreed.
My misgivings about our excursion faded into the background as I viewed our surroundings. Within an hour we had located our camp site and installed tents and belongings. While Harry was setting up the cook stove I sat in my tent and took the morning’s mail from my purse. The first envelope contained a letter requesting a donation to the food bank. The second envelope was the copy of my investment application papers that Ms. Grey had mailed from Harry’s office. I found the page with my personal information to be quite interesting. The beneficiary of my annuity had been altered. My nephew’s name was replaced by one “Gina Rinaldi”. No wonder Mother had urged diligence. In order for Miss Rinaldi to benefit I would have to be dead. I stared at the paper silently for some time until I became aware of Gwen calling my name. I stuffed the pages back in the envelope, stored my purse under the cot, and exited the tent.
“I must have dozed off,” I apologized.
“No problem. You had a long drive,” she replied. “Harry’s gone off to explore the viewpoints. We’re indulging in coffee with a little brandy.”
She handed me a mug which I held to warm my hands. “It does get chilly once the sun sets,” I said.
When Gwen stood to replace the coffee pot on the stove I set my mug down and picked up hers in exchange. We sat and sipped silently as the temperature dropped.
“Harry is certainly taking his time,” she complained and slumped lower in her camp chair. She pulled a sweater over her shoulders and scowled into the growing dusk. I watched with interest as she finished her coffee. The other campers were a good ways off and the countryside was quiet. Gwen blinked nervously and kept peering over her shoulder to look for Harry.
“I believe this brandy is giving me a headache,” she complained.
She stared at her cup for some time in silence. “It’s awfully warm,” she finally spoke. Then she wiped her hand across her forehead and took off the sweater.
She appeared to doze and then suddenly burst into laughter and called out, “Just look at the stars!”
I made no reply as her giddy laughter eventually turned to groans. After a time she whispered in fright, “I can’t move my legs,” and closed her eyes.
I waited a few minutes and then spoke her name. There was no response. Gwen didn’t look so fashionable sprawled and still in her chair with her head thrown back and a foamy residue on her lips.
I hurried to my tent. It took me no time to gather my things and stow them in the car. I slipped behind the wheel. Through the side mirror I saw Harry approaching the camp site.
“Gina?” His harsh whisper cut through the darkness. “Is she out yet?”
He fingered the neck of his sweatshirt. For once he was without his bow tie. It made him look vulnerable somehow.
I turned the key in the ignition and drove away without a backward glance. As I headed home I wondered how Harry would cope with the situation. The woman who was undoubtedly Gina Rinaldi was dead and it involved an insecticide that he possessed illegally. It wasn’t his only illegal act as I’d learned when I’d read my financial papers.
I sighed as both Montana and my yearning for a future with Harry Reynolds faded into darkness. He must have thought that Mother had raised a fool.